Managing knowledge and delivering learning in the hybrid workplace is critical, but can also be challenging. In a series of blogs we look at some of the main issues that often arise, and how that has driven us to design Slick Plus. In the first part we look at informal knowledge and the important role it plays in organisational life.

Do you have a Maureen from Accounts in your organisation or department? Maureen’s one of the unsung heroes of the workplace. She’s the go-to person who seems to know everything about getting things done. Fixing the creaking finance system that the IT function doesn’t seem to know much about. Remembering how the team dealt with a tricky situation with a customer seemingly lost in the past. Remembering stuff from years ago that provides a precedent or context for dealing with a tricky situation today.

Maureen – or whoever that person’s name or department is in your workplace – is critical for organisations because she holds so much informal knowledge. Helpful people like Maureen always get asked for specific information, give input and provide a fresh perspective on overcoming challenges, unblocking bottlenecks or simply on what to do next. And it’s incredible how much everybody relies on her knowledge; when Maureen is on annual leave everybody notices. They also pray that the Finance system doesn’t get stuck on that screen it always seems to get stuck on. 

What is informal knowledge?

Maureen’s amazing bank of informal knowledge has been built up over years of working in the organisation. But because she’s helpful and usually around to give an answer, much of what she knows has never been captured or written down as formal knowledge. There is no written manual, user guide, how-to-video, e-learning course, or even a simple blog post that has been codified in a way so it can be searched for that encapsulates what Maureen knows.

In Knowledge Management (KM) circles, the informal knowledge that we walk around with in our heads is generally referred to as examples of tacit knowledge while formal knowledge which is written down, captured in formats such as video, or taught through courses is referred to as examples of explicit knowledge

Because informal or tacit knowledge has so much value, KM teams spend a lot of time and effort trying to capture tacit knowledge and turn it into explicit knowledge so others can learn from what people know. But as we will see, this is seldom straightforward and often quite complicated.

The power of experiential learning

One thing to consider about informal knowledge is that much of it has been gained through experiential learning. Consider Maureen’s knowledge about the finance system. That’s been gained from years of working with it on a day-to-day basis, but also in helping sort out problems like the screen-freeze.

While she is likely to have been on a course on how to use the system, she may have never actually been on a trouble shooting course on fixing that issue. Instead, that critical knowledge has been gained by helping her colleagues over the years – effectively learning through experience or on the job. This knowledge is also context-specific  as Maureen knows how the finance system works in her organisation, the multiple tweaks and add-ons that have occurred over the years, and so on.

It’s fair to say that most learning professionals acknowledge that much of our learning is actually acquired through experience rather than through formal methods. The 70-20-10 model is a highly influential framework that has influenced approaches to organisational learning since the mid-nineties. It suggests that only 10% of what we learn comes from formal training, with 20% coming from social learning gained through relationships, and the remaining 70% from experiences gained on the job, often in overcoming challenges.

There’s lots of valid criticism of the 70-20-10 model; but it still holds sway among many experts and as HR thought leaders like Josh Bersin have acknowledged, it does “make a point – that most learning does take place on the job.”

The tip of the iceberg

Because we all learn from our everyday experiences it means all of us gain informal knowledge in the process, complementing the knowledge we gain from more formal learning channels. Collectively, this means there’s a huge amount of informal knowledge floating around any organisation. In our own way, we’re all Maureens.

While Maureen from Accounts knows everything about the finance system, she doesn’t know anything about the new CRM system – you have to ask Samir in marketing for that. And the best way to do social media? That’s Vickie. And generative AI? That’s Ludmilla who experimented with ChatGPT and was buzzing with ideas.

In fact, it’s fair to say that formal knowledge that we have captured is far outweighed by the informal knowledge that we haven’t captured. There’s a well-worn but memorable trope that represents organisational knowledge as an iceberg, with the tip that’s exposed above the surface of the water representing the formal knowledge we have captured and learnt through formal channels. Meanwhile the huge mass of ice hidden under the water, two-thirds of the entire berg, is the informal knowledge that is effectively locked inside of people’s heads.

The value of informal knowledge

Informal knowledge plays a critical role in the life of organisations, but its influence and the extent to which we rely on it sometimes goes under the radar. But instinctively when we think about what any workforce knows, there is huge potential. 

Imagine if we could just capture a fraction of the informal knowledge out there to what could be achieved? We can improve processes, save time and improve productivity, support learning and development, even upskill everybody; we’ll be exploring some of these important aspects in greater detail later in this blog series. But also imagine what we lose when we don’t capture this knowledge. What happens when Maureen moves on to a new organisation or retires?

KM teams know the potential value of capturing more knowledge. In a January 2024 survey of global KM teams from APQC, the most popular priority for KM teams in 2024 is “Identifying, mapping or prioritising critical knowledge.”  The survey also reveals some of the drivers for capturing this knowledge; it’s worth noting that the second most important opportunity or threat is identified as “Employee retirements and churn make it critical to capture / transfer knowledge.”

Everyone’s a learner, everyone’s a teacher

Another reason that informal knowledge has so much value is that it is unique to each individual. Everything we learn and potentially share with others is framed by our own experiences and previous perspectives. We all bring different things to the table. And often that means we are also able to apply that knowledge so it is context-specific, applying things we learnt from one situation to another to overcome problems, make decisions and so forth.

And when we are able to access knowledge from a wider variety of people the results are even better. There’s a large bank of research to show that having access to a diverse range of perspectives and related knowledge improves decision-making, professional growth and innovation. Not only are two heads better than one, but so are three, four and five.

For example, let’s return to the problem with the finance system. Everyone’s been relying on Maureen’s fixes that get them past the problem with the screen freezing. But remember Samir who’s the whizz on the CRM system? Actually, he’s encountered a similar problem there and he knows it’s to do with entering data in the wrong format. Perhaps that formatting issue could prevent some of the issues with the finance system. And strangely, that is something that Maureen may have overlooked.

Essentially no two learners are the same. When designing Slick Plus we recognised the importance of informal knowledge unique to each individual. Not only is every person a learner, but every person is a teacher. So Slick Plus is designed to be a system that everyone can use and expose more of that knowledge iceberg that’s beneath the surface, so both Maureen and Samir can contribute their perspectives.

Why is so little informal knowledge captured?

In this article, we’ve been putting forward our argument about the importance of informal knowledge. So you may be thinking if that is the case, why is so little informal knowledge captured in most organisations?

Let’s go back to Maureen and that problem with the finance system where the screen keeps on freezing. Why doesn’t Maureen just document what needs to be done so nobody needs to bother her anymore? Although that is actually probably a good idea, there might be a number of reasons why it hasn’t happened.

Firstly, Maureen is super-busy so she doesn’t have the time to document what to do.

Secondly, it’s not that simple as there are actually three or four different instances where the finance system locks, and often Maureen has to decipher the steps of what’s gone before to unlock the system.

Thirdly, perhaps Maureen actually did document it in a beautiful Word document with screenshots. But it’s 17 pages long and nobody has time to read (or find) that, when it’s quicker to just ask Maureen.

Fourthly, Maureen likes being asked. She enjoys making a contribution and being valued, and actually continues to learn about the creaking finance system and new problems that arise.

Lastly, there isn’t a convenient technology that captures knowledge in the flow of work and at the right time, making it easy to find at the point of need, and in a format that is going to be easiest to share. It’s simply too much effort or isn’t clear, so nothing gets done.

Our outdated approach to knowledge and learning

Another reason why so little informal knowledge is captured is because often organisations still rely on outmoded models of how people actually learn and share knowledge.

We are in a knowledge economy, so this stuff is hugely important. But actually, most organisations take a view of learning that’s persisted from the industrial age based on the transfer of knowledge of experts to learners. Of course, tapping the knowledge of experts is still critical to deliver services, design amazing products, stay compliant, and make the best decisions. But we can also overlook the input from the Maureens, Samirs, Vickies and Ludmillas.

Organisations also fail to change to new circumstances around the hybrid workplace with remote, flexible and asynchronous work. That makes it even harder to ask Maureen who isn’t just sitting around the corner. Actually, she’s working several miles away, tends to work some evenings to better fit in with her role as a primary carer, and isn’t able to give the instant answer that people have been used to. This makes capturing informal knowledge even more urgent.

A different approach

Slick Plus takes a different approach to capturing informal knowledge and delivering learning in the flow of work. In the next blog we’ll look at why making sure your most valuable knowledge doesn’t walk through the door when people leave for a new role is becoming increasingly critical, and what you can do about it.

Interested to learn more? Please get in touch to talk – we love solving problems 🙂

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